As economy hits travel biz, William Shatner fights back

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The job market stinks, home foreclosures are mounting, consumer spending has slowed to a crawl, and actor William Shatner’s job just got a lot tougher.

As the pitchman for online travel agency, Shatner, aka the Priceline Negotiator, has to convince people to take vacations. That’s a tall order at a time when economic recession has all but squashed discretionary spending in the United States.

But the 77-year-old actor best known for playing Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek movies and television series is hopeful that spending begets spending, and that if enough people loosen their purse strings and venture out for leisure travel the economy could rebound.

“We’re in danger of retracting so much that everything will fail,” Shatner told Reuters. “We’re being fed by fear, and fear feeds on itself. And if we can break that cycle, we might come out of this sooner and better than we expect.”

Since 1998, Shatner has been the celebrity spokesman for Priceline, which staked out its turf with its name-your-own-price auction.

But in 2006 Shatner stopped promoting the company as himself and stepped into the role of the Negotiator, a comically intense super agent obsessed with helping travelers find deals on travel bookings.

“He’s a commercial character, born of necessity and nurtured on fear,” Shatner said.

In the TV ads, the Negotiator barges into homes and offices where he intimidates, berates and bullies customers into negotiating cheap bookings on Priceline.

Sometimes he has help from a falcon or a lemur.

With travel budgets withering, Priceline and rivals like Expedia Inc and Orbitz Worldwide are racing to spur bookings through creative package deals and expansion into foreign markets.

Priceline gives a nod to the recession in a new ad in which the Negotiator helps a husband convince his wife that travel deals can be found in a bad economy.

In another ad, Shatner’s Negotiator goes as far as to kidnap a vacationing couple who paid too much for a trip. It was necessary, said Shatner, who argues that times are tough and the Negotiator must be forceful to help set the economy right.

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘aggressive’ but more strident in his determination to get his message across to the American public,” he said.

Reporting by Kyle Peterson; editing by Patricia Reaney